Evertonians came in trepidation of the damage that Wayne Rooney, who was revered as one of their own as a true-blue 16-year-old, might inflict upon his boyhood heroes. They left exultant after the vanquishing of Manchester United, singing the praises of a new crop of Everton kids after substitutes Dan Gosling, 20, and Jack Rodwell, 18, took the game beyond the champions in the final 14 minutes.
United, by Sir Alex Ferguson's admission, finished "well beaten" by opponents who were not only fielding a patched-up side but had defeated them just three times in 35 Premier League meetings prior to yesterday's sunlit affair at Goodison Park.
When Dimitar Berbatov gave United an early lead it seemed we were on course for a familiar outcome. Yet there is a resilience about Everton these days, as they showed when coming from behind to beat Chelsea in the previous home game, and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's swift riposte denied United the opportunity to build on their advantage.
At that stage, whenever Rooney took possession those among the home supporters who were not jeering the so-called Judas had their hearts in their mouths, mindful of the ruthless finishing the United talisman, now 24, had exhibited against Milan at San Siro. But Rooney could not take the only chance allowed to him.
In contrast, Gosling, a Devonian midfielder whose previous claim to fame was knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup last season, struck within six minutes of appearing as a substitute. Rodwell, like Rooney a boyhood Everton devotee and himself linked with a move to Old Trafford, emulated him in the final minute.
Ferguson did not mince his words afterwards. "We were well beaten," the United manager said. There was, he suggested a "small possibility" that his players had "left something in Milan" because they had shown "a lot of tiredness", but he added: "We expect Manchester United to respond to the importance of a game.
"We started well enough but the goal galvanised them. You don't want to concede so soon after taking the lead. In the second half they were simply better than us. It's a bad result for us. At this time of year you can't afford results like that."
Ferguson's fellow Scot, David Moyes, had demanded his side "have a go" at United and was richly rewarded, with the American Landon Donovan and the unsung Leon Osman commanding midfield. "They were better than us at the start but, like the Chelsea game, we grew into it," the Everton manager said. "United made changes to get energy; so did we. Last Tuesday [against Sporting Lisbon] the substitutions didn't work, but this time they did." United's psychological hold over Everton appeared to tighten when they went ahead in the 16th minute. Berbatov was given time to control a low cross by Antonio Valencia before dispatching a shot that shook the underside of the bar on its way in.
Three minutes later, John Heitinga launched a long ball for which Louis Saha challenged Jonny Evans in the air. Bilyaletdinov, Moyes' £8.9 million winger from Lokomotiv Moscow, pounced on the scraps, steadied himself and from 20 yards hit a swerving drive that left Edwin van der Sar flat-footed for his fifth goal of the season.
As the contest lurched from one end to the other, Rooney's only real moment of menace arrived 60 seconds later. A one-two with Berbatov saw him round the sprawling Tim Howard, but as if from nowhere another former United colleague, Phil Neville, materialised to shepherd the ball behind for a corner. That was almost Rooney's last significant contribution. Once, after losing possession, he showed his exasperation by remonstrating with Valencia, who was an innocent bystander 20 yards away on the wing.
United had not dropped points, let alone been beaten, from a winning position this season. But there were signs of uncertainty in central defence, where Evans and Wes Brown each resembled a mistake waiting to happen, and if the otherwise excellent Donovan had not miscued with the goal at his mercy they would have been behind long before Moyes rang the changes to such telling effect.
In the 76th minute, Donovan sent Steven Pienaar scampering down the left flank. The ball was cut back to the edge of the six-yard area where Gosling side-footed the ball in to give Everton the lead they deserved. Then, as added time loomed, Mikel Arteta released Rodwell to run at the hapless Evans, whom he left trailing before angling his shot beyond Van der Sar and sparking delirium around Goodison.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Osman
Match rating: 8/10